What Chandra Levy didn't know

Today's writers see affairs between younger women and older men as ambiguous transactions that sometimes lead to tragedy.

By Maria Russo
Published July 23, 2001 10:54PM (EDT)

"Whenever you have a situation where the men have power and the women have youth and beauty, there's a trade-off. The men exploit their power to get sex, and the women exploit their looks to get promotions, or good grades, or just a good time."

These lines don't refer to the affair between 24-year-old Chandra Levy and 53-year-old Rep. Gary Condit, although they do shed light on the often sad story of that familiar pairing between an avid young woman and an incautious, high-status older man. They're spoken by a character in David Lodge's new novel, "Thinks." In fact, literary fiction is a good place to turn if you're looking for some insight into this age-old, but nowadays more complicated than ever, match.

Novelists have long been attracted to the subject of an older married man and his much younger girlfriend. It's ideal literary material: Not only does the pairing push many, many people's buttons, it creates stories that inevitably seep past the boundaries of the relationship itself, raising provocative questions about sex and power, aging and mortality, inequity and exploitation.

The potential for the relationship to end in tragedy has always been clear. The woman faces obvious danger, both emotionally and, sometimes, physically -- where would crime fiction be without the dead-young-mistress scenario? -- but just as often it's the man who comes to ruin. In Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie," for example, George Hurstwood, the well-respected manager of a fashionable Chicago restaurant, abandons his wife and children to run away to New York with Carrie Meeber, a pretty shopgirl and aspiring actress who senses that he can help lift her station. Once Carrie achieves a career on the New York stage, she loses interest in him. Meanwhile, by barely perceptible degrees, Hurstwood descends the social ladder, ending up committing suicide in a flophouse.

In recent literary fiction, the emphasis is less on lurking tragedy and more on the way in which the relationship is a transaction in which both parties pursue their own agendas. The man may seem to have more leverage, but the seesaw doesn't always tilt in predictable ways. In Lodge's "Thinks," for example, we see two versions of the married-man/younger-woman scenario, and in both cases the man pays a heavier price than the woman.

In one of the novel's subplots, Lodge's hero, Ralph Messenger, an English scientist with an international reputation, is known as a womanizer, but his sexual taste runs toward mature women. In fact, when he lands in bed with a young research assistant after he gives a seminar in Prague, it's partly out of boredom, partly out of habit and completely due to her machinations.

Ralph has pegged Ludmila as one of the many desperate young women trying to make a go of it in the new Czech Republic, shrewdly and cynically aware that their future depends on cozying up to powerful men: "I imagine these young women all over Prague," he says, "living at home in cramped apartments in crummy concrete tower blocks, sharing a bedroom with a younger sister, a bathroom with the whole family, with no privacy, no money, just one really good dress in the wardrobe and a figure which they tend carefully like a priceless plant, knowing their prospects depend on not getting to look like their mothers."

Ludmila is assigned to show Ralph around the city, and he realizes right away that she expects him to sleep with her. He's not especially turned on by her -- he finds her too thin and small-chested -- but by the end of the evening, he makes a move and they have perfunctory sex. He suspects she has faked her orgasm. "No, it was definitely not a lay to remember with any great satisfaction," he concludes.

Just as he thinks he's done with the whole sorry episode he realizes that it's payback time: "I'd carelessly mentioned the conference at the end of May and when she was getting dressed to go home she asked me if she could give a paper because then she could apply to the British Council for a travel grant." He lies and tells her the program is full, but that she can present a poster, a less prestigious option that involves posting one's research findings in a common area of the conference. "I could hardly say less having just fucked her," he realizes.

But when the conference rolls around, Ralph nonetheless tries to blow Ludmila off, telling her that there's no room even for her poster. It's only after a slew of increasingly insistent e-mails, which end with an outright threat to "write all about what we did in Prague together and post it on the Internet," that he sends her an acceptance letter.

What has Ralph gotten out of the deal? Nothing but a night of forgettable sex and a chance to be blackmailed into granting a professional "favor." He's not really a lecher: It's less his predatory instinct than his essential good nature that prevents him from seeing this coming and passing up sex with the calculating Ludmila. She, in turn, has traded her body for a shot at professional advancement, but given the still-desperate Eastern European milieu she lives in, it's hard to know whether to revile or applaud her for it.

"Thinks" also includes a more familiar scenario: the married man who habitually pursues younger women, deceiving his wife and leaving the striving young girlfriends angry and confused once the thrill wears off and he's over them. The wife in this case is Helen Reed, a 40-ish novelist who is visiting Ralph's university, recently widowed and still grieving for her beloved husband, Martin. She's teaching a fiction-writing workshop, and one of her students, a sullen girl named Sandra Pickering, turns in a story with a male character who bears a striking resemblance to Martin. Helen discovers that Sandra had an affair with Martin when she was his intern at the BBC and had based her main character on him before she knew that Helen would be her teacher.

Anyone who reads Lodge's novels knows that in his fictional universe, committing adultery is not necessarily a terrible offense; but for adultery to avoid being foolish and destructive, it has to pass a moral smell test involving factors such as maintaining absolute discretion, choosing a partner who's not one's obvious underling and protecting one's spouse from humiliation. Quite simply, the Martin-Sandra adultery stinks. Not only did all of his colleagues know about it and keep it from Helen, but Sandra was left bitter and disillusioned when he replaced her with another young woman.

There's a breathtaking cost for the way Martin has conducted himself: His very memory is desecrated. He will not be remembered with love by his family. His long marriage is, in a sense, erased. "I had been completely deceived," Helen writes in her journal. "If he were still alive I would divorce him. But death has divorced us already."

In "Thinks," the older men who pursue these relationships come out looking weak and lazy at best, heedless and egotistical at worst; the younger women seem slightly pathetic, deluded and grasping. But perhaps Lodge's biggest point is that while these affairs may seem like secret, private matters, they're inevitably part of a larger network of relationships; they have repercussions that spiral far beyond what either party imagines. No one gets what they think they'll get out of it.

Philip Roth's latest novella, "The Dying Animal," tries to isolate the relationship, pull it out of its social context and examine it as if it were some sort of scientific specimen, reduced to its very emotional essence. But even Roth's deeply internalized method can't escape the overwhelming sense that this pairing is a transaction in which each side is hoping for a good deal. For Roth, it all boils down to a power game -- one that, taking place as it does largely in the head of a neurotic, vain, cranky man in his 60s, has a decidedly creepy feel to it.

Roth avoids the ethical complications that adultery adds to the pairing: His 62-year-old protagonist, David Kepesh, a noted cultural critic with his own television show, is long divorced and has renounced matrimony as an oppressive institution. Not only does he have no marriage to lose, he's also not seeking the thrill of sex with someone other than his wife -- he has plenty of lovers. The younger woman, a reserved 24-year-old Cuban-American named Consuela Castillo, also defies the stereotype: She has no career ambition and does not want to be seen in public with him; she's not looking to Kepesh as a shortcut to fame or career advancement. She's awed by his deep cultural knowledge, but seems to want only to be in the presence of it, not to use it to further her own goals.

As Kepesh describes it, despite being 38 years her senior and formerly in a position of institutional authority over her -- he "finds" her when she takes a college course that he teaches because it provides him with nubile candidates for affairs -- he is in no way in control of the relationship. Consuela, he believes, soon realizes that it does "not accord with the facts" to behave like a "youthful student," that is, as if "it was the elderly teacher who was in charge."

In fact, the scales at first appear to tip in Consuela's direction. What she gets from Kepesh is the chance to have her body worshiped, to be with a man who just can't get enough of her jumbo breasts, a man who is enthralled with her unselfconscious ease in her body and her straightforward sexual nature -- and who doesn't expect her to enjoy his body in any similar way. What's more, he conjectures, his status as a man of worldly authority makes her feel powerful, albeit in a secondhand way: "To have gained the total interest, to have become the consuming passion, of a man inaccessible in every other arena, to enter a life she admires that would otherwise be closed to her -- that's power, and it's the power she wants."

Kepesh becomes obsessive about Consuela, but she remains cool and somewhat detached. "She didn't desire me, never desired me," he laments. "She experimented with me, really, to see how overwhelming her breasts could be." What's more, she challenges his sense of himself as a sexual outlaw, someone determined to remain unattached yet sexually active, to "master the discipline of freedom." With Consuela, for the first time, he feels chained. She's not cruel, just semi-indifferent to everything about him except how he makes her see herself. "There's no relief from the longing and my sense of myself as a supplicant," he complains. When she ends the affair, he's in agony. He spends eight years masturbating over memories of her.

Then she reappears in his life with awful news: At 32, she has breast cancer. Roth plays this situation for its rather heavy-handed tragic irony -- alas, even the most sublimely perfect boobs are made of mortal flesh -- but also as a way to even the score between the lovers. "Her sense of time is now the same as mine, speeded up and more forlorn even than mine," Kepesh says in a tone that, while mournful, also comes across as slightly exultant. "She in fact has overtaken me," he concludes, and it's hard not to hear in this an old man reassuring himself that at last he's triumphed over his young lover -- she now will be the first to die. He has won in the deadly serious game of "trading dominance, the perpetual imbalance" that he insists is the nature of all sexuality.

Or has he? Roth seems to want to use Consuela's reversal of fortune as an opportunity for Kepesh to reexamine his commitment not to fall in love, not to give himself over to another person. Early in the book, as he's trying to understand why he has become obsessed with Consuela, Kepesh hints that he might finally be interested in giving up his joyless "freedom" and forming an attachment to someone: "This need. This derangement. Will it never stop? I don't even know after a while what I'm desperate for. Her tits? Her youth? Her simple mind? Maybe it's worse than that -- maybe now that I'm nearing death, I also secretly long not to be free." "The Dying Animal" ends with Consuela phoning Kepesh to ask him to come to her, and he does, while a voice warns him not to go: "If you go, you're finished."

"The Dying Animal" uses the motif of the younger woman and the older man in an interesting way: The novella suggests that only a simple-minded but physically ravishing much younger woman can produce the precise emotional contortions that are required for a certain type of powerful, intelligent man to form a lasting romantic bond -- and that it can only happen after her beauty is jeopardized, leaving her bereft of the only source of power she had.

Why any woman would assent to such an arrangement is another question, one that Roth can make us forget only by detaching the noun "young woman" from the phrase "with her whole life in front of her." Barbara Shulgasser-Parker's recent novel, "Funny Accent," tries to come at the situation with a more realistic premise, and if her novel is any indication, it all looks considerably different from the woman's side.

"Funny Accent" concerns a 32-year-old woman who has spent her youth attracted only to much older men. Anna, the novel's protagonist, was subject, from the age of 13 on, to the sexual attentions of her parents' old friend Misha; he drew her into closets and behind plants at every opportunity for bouts of kissing, fondling and undressing. They never actually had sex, and by the time she is in her late teens that's a source of frustration. At 22, full of romantic imaginings, she flies home to see him and finally consummate their relationship, but he nervously demurs and sends her away. She's mortified.

"Funny Accent" chronicles the revenge the adult Anna takes on Misha as well as her attempts to overcome her propensity for getting involved with men old enough to be her father. Her triumph comes when she is able to turn down a marriage proposal from Sydney, a 65-year-old friend to whom she has long been attracted. ("In ten years, I'll be a forty-two-year-old widow with a ten-year-old," she thinks.)

Shulgasser-Parker is not as accomplished a novelist as Roth and Lodge are and lacks their subtlety, but her oversimplification of her heroine's inner life makes it all the more clear that in her mind, the younger woman in such relationships is after something that's primarily psychological, not just an exchange of "goods" -- sex -- for access to power. What Anna looks for when choosing the men in her life is the chance to work through the aftermath of being messed with emotionally and sexually at a tender age.

Wherever the authors' sympathies lie (with Shulgasser-Parker it's with the woman, with Roth it's with the man, and Lodge balances the two), these literary May-December affairs illustrate that while the relationships often are transactions, they're transactions in which the negotiations are usually unspoken and indirect. That's where the potential for tragedy comes in. If there are rules, no one enforces them, and when one party doesn't get the satisfaction he or she expects, the consequences can include not just a broken heart but blackmail or even violence.

Monica Lewinsky, for example, demanded a job at Revlon only after her naive dreams of a lasting liaison with President Clinton were bitterly dashed and she'd given him the nickname the "Big Creep." Perhaps Chandra Levy would have a similarly disillusioned tale to tell. Then there's the cost to society when a professor like Kepesh teaches a university class solely to provide himself with a well-stocked pool of potential sexual conquests. Or when a politician regards an educational institution like the government's internship program as his own personal nookie farm. Maybe we can chalk it all up to "the chaos of eros," as Roth's protagonist believes. But the price for these mismatched clandestine romances is not always clearly marked, and in the end, you never know who'll wind up paying.

Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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